A Community Conferencing Problem Solving Approach © Charles Emmrys PhD.
The act of bullying can be defined as an act where a child intimidates or is aggressive towards another in order to gain status, prestige or social advantage at the expense of the child being bullied. It is an almost universal form of peer to peer aggression that few people fully avoid as they are growing up. But even if it is common, it is nonetheless very painful to experience and potentially damaging to one’s self esteem and self-confidence if you are a victim. If you are a bully, the short term effects are less important but the longer term effects are just as compromising. If the adults around the child and the children themselves respond appropriately to the events, a traumatic event can turn into a learning opportunity. If adults do not intervene, bullying situations can last years, causing stress and stress related physical and psychological diseases that can last a lifetime.
Two Kinds of Bullying
Though one may divide bullying events in many ways, for our purposes, we will identify two types of peer situations where bullying occurs. Responses to bullying will vary depending on which situation the bullying occurs in. These situations are:
Dealing with Intragroup Bullying
Intragroup bullying should be seen as a form of conflict that is best managed by responsibilizing the group to improve its ways of interacting. When a child reports an intragroup bullying experience, the adults should meet with the group and instruct them in the following way:
Once these instructions are given, the adult then tells the kids that he will see them the next day at recess time to find out if they have found a way to make it work. If all goes well, he meets with them three days later at recess time to check in. If that goes well, he sees them in a week. At the end of the third check in, the teacher asks the group if they feel like they can take responsibility for managing themselves or if they want to keep meeting with an adult. Usually, the children are only too glad to take responsibility at that point since meeting with an adult is rarely how they want to spend some of their recess time.
In the uncommon situation where the children fail to resolve their differences, the adult can do one more thing to give the children a bit more incentive. The instruction would go as follows:
1. OK kids, you don’t seem able to resolve this so I will ask you to not play with each other for two days and think it over and then come to see me.
Almost always, these measures will help resolve the conflict. On the rare occasion where it does not lead to a resolution, then the kids will need to simply stop playing with each other, a solution that almost always leads to sadness and some loss of friendship.
The role of parents for all the children is potentially crucial. All adults involved, including all parents of all the children, should basically encourage a resolution of the conflict and stress the learning opportunity. They should avoid defending their child or demanding the removal of another child from the group. The consistency of the message communicated to the children from all adults concerned is the single most important factor affecting success in these interventions. Preparing as a parent-adult group for the intervention cannot be stressed enough. Often the teacher will play a crucial role in educating the parents about the intervention to be pursued, the value of it for all children and the role that parents need to play.
Dealing with Extragroup Bullying
Extragroup bullying is a conflict between two children where the target of the aggression is often one that has no relationship with his aggressor. The bully is typically supported by a cohort of his friends and the target is much less powerful, younger or different from the norm. In such cases, intragroup interventions tend to be ineffective. It is also a scenario where other peers who come to the defence of the targeted child risk being themselves the target of bullying by the bully and his cohort. For that reason, letting the kids work it out among themselves rarely works. We suggest that the person who works with the child doing the bullying should be an adult with authority.
The intervention should be structured in the following way.
What is not recommended is for the two children to be invited to figure this out between them. The power difference often prevents a fair working through process from taking place.
This intervention is best carried out in confidence, i.e., only the children involved and the parents of those children should be witness to the process. This confidentiality should be stressed with the children and all involved adults and parents. The emphasis should be on stressing that “everyone makes mistakes and the goal is to correct it and help all concerned be better people”.
The role of the parents is again important. For the child that complained of being bullied, the parents need to stress respecting the no contact rules as a responsibility they need to respect and that badmouthing the other kids will be seen as a grave disregard of his responsibility that will be reported to the adults involved. For the children who are accused of bullying, the parents need to stress the same message as that given by the teacher and emphasise that mistakes are mistakes and that correcting them is the most important thing.
The parents of a child accused of being a bully can often be very defensive and question if their child is not the victim of discrimination. For them, the confidentiality of the process is particularly important.
On Parent Involvement
Bullying is something that all parents hope their children will never be involved in either as victim or aggressor. So any call to a parent by a responsible teacher or group leader will be difficult. We strongly advise, however, that the adults responsible for the children not shrug this difficult task. What we do urge is that the process be described as much as possible as a learning opportunity that teaches social responsibility and tolerance. Even when the facts are not completely clear, the exercise itself should be seen and described as one that leaves all concerned better citizens.
On the Question of Proof
The question of proof is fairly easy to establish in intragroup bullying since all concerned are more or less witness to the dynamic. Extragroup bullying is far less evident and can be effectively hidden given that 90% of bullying between children escapes the attention of adults. In the end, there is always a judgement call but the adults responsible for the environment are well advised to ear on the side of caution. If the adult is not comfortable in making a clear statement about bullying, then he/she can call the accused group of kids together and ask that they respect the no contact rule with this particular child and that regular check-ups with all concerned will take place to make sure the no contact rule is respected. To fail to do so would lead to the process described above.